Coprinus Atramentarius, Or The Mushroom Gatherers

By Richard Osmond
Image Copyright: Charlotte Runcie (


Dramatis Personæ:


Leofric – exiled warrior-prince

Cynefrið – his wife, also exiled, separated from her husband

Eoforhild – the leader of the hall. Exiled Leofric and Cynefrið.

Æsc – the hall’s official bard

Chorus – a modern academic – lecturer in the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic department.


The scene: a forest. In the middle of the stage is a fallen oak tree whose roots, torn from the ground, have created a small hollow shelter. The chorus occupies a space in front of the stage dressed as the lectern-area of a lecture hall.


Enter Cynefrið


Cynefrið:x I was Cynefrið, peace-queen,
xxxxxxxxcup-passing prince-consort,
xxxxxxxxgold and rune-gilded goblet-bearer,
xxxxxxxxweaver of wine-drunk tribe-oaths
xxxxxxxxgo-between to the battle-bold,
xxxxxxxxcrossing the hall-floor, half-full
xxxxxxxxof mead and merriment. Now I am unnamed,
xxxxxxxxgo-alone between nothing but
xxxxxxxxden and dune, deprived of cup, bound
xxxxxxxxby looming slopes and low valleys.

xxxxxxxxI tell myself in misery, sing the song of me,
xxxxxxxxcruelly torn from my love-lord,
xxxxxxxxforest-lost, forced to live
xxxxxxxxunder oaktree, in this earth-scrape,
xxxxxxxxweary in the rainy weather, warmthless.


Enter Chorus – delivering broken fragments of a lecture


Chorus:xxxthe nameless voice of the wife or woman’s
xxxxxxxxxlament speaks in almost
xxxxxxxxxmystically ambiguous kennings

xxxxxxxxxmuch ink has been spilled
xxxxxxxxxon the eorðscræfe or earth-cave;
xxxxxxxxxshelter or possibly
xxxxxxxxxdeath-place, the exile-hall
xxxxxxxxxas prolepsis of the grave.

xxxxxxxxxthe unknown exile-woman, doubly lost
xxxxxxxxxin our ignorance,
xxxxxxxxxdwells in the dead space of unclear

xxxxxxxxxusage, under the oak tree,
xxxxxxxxxbetween the hills,


Enter Æsc


Æsc:xxxxxHail Cynefrið!

Cynefrið:x Æsc! Is that you
xxxxxxxxxor a weak echo
xxxxxxxxxof old-laughter? How I have
xxxxxxxxxmissed your meter, the ring
xxxxxxxxxof your wordlinks, the hard metal
xxxxxxxxxsword-chimes of your battle-verse, and sweet music.
xxxxxxxxxCan the hall-bard be here for the trees alone
xxxxxxxxxand me, to hurl his hero-song up to the leaf-roof
xxxxxxxxxof the dark wood? No, I dream.

Æsc:xxxxxI have come – you do not dream –
xxxxxxxxxbut not to sing. Oh Cynefrið,
xxxxxxxxxyou honour me, but I have set down the harp
xxxxxxxxxfor more important matters, I bring a message
xxxxxxxxxfrom Eoforhild, our gift-giving gold-lord.

Cynefrið:xEoforhild! What more terrible threats
xxxxxxxxxcan you bring from the boar-slayer
xxxxxxxxxthan have already attacked my husband and me?
xxxxxxxxxThe blood-hard one will never be satisfied!
xxxxxxxxxHe sent my friend-lord over the frosty froth of seas
xxxxxxxxxand drove me, by death-warning, to the depths
xxxxxxxxxof this wet-rotting winter-cave.

xxxxxxxxxDeprived of loaf-ward’s love,
xxxxxxxxxI pray for bread, golden barley-crop,
xxxxxxxxxbut no grain grows, only grimy toadstools,
xxxxxxxxxstraining, witch-like, towards the waxing moon,
xxxxxxxxxsick dough rising at midnight, sown by no man.

xxxxxxxxxThe thief Eoforhild has denied me harvest,
xxxxxxxxxstolen the swaying fields of sun,
xxxxxxxxxand I am no more than mould,
xxxxxxxxxno more than these mushrooms,
xxxxxxxxxliving on rain and dead earth.

Æsc:xxxxxMadam, you misunderstand.
xxxxxxxxxEoforhild sends no threats. Ever since
xxxxxxxxxyou were banished, battle has tipped the benches.
xxxxxxxxxBrother fights brother, the war-strong
xxxxxxxxxturn on each other. Tricks and treachery
xxxxxxxxxreign under the roof. The joy-lord requests
xxxxxxxxxyour peace-weaving, pardons your exile.
xxxxxxxxxHe offers a seat in the old hall, if you will have it.

Cynefrið:xAnd Leofric, my lost lord?

Æsc: xxxxxHe is long drowned, surely, lying dead in the dregs
xxxxxxxxxof the whale-road. Were it possible, Eoforhild would
xxxxxxxxxreverse his judgement, reach over the jigsaw of waves
xxxxxxxxxand restore Leofric to life,
xxxxxxxxxbut time is fire-tempered iron. Eoforhild offers
xxxxxxxxxall he can to compensate, riches and reward.

Cynefrið:xA seat by the fire would suffice,
xxxxxxxxxaway from winter’s bitter whip,
xxxxxxxxxbut oh! My conscience is cloven
xxxxxxxxxby the memory of Leofric, my mind forked
xxxxxxxxxas if with horns, or the hart’s autumn-hard antlers.
xxxxxxxxxI long for my lord’s old hall,
xxxxxxxxxbut balk at the betrayal of him.

Æsc: xxxxxWorry not, good woman,
xxxxxxxxxEoforhild understands. His offer is open –
xxxxxxxxxHe wishes me to bring him word
xxxxxxxxxonly at daybreak. You have hours to deliberate.

Cynefrið: xHours? An entire lifetime is not enough
xxxxxxxxxto choose between heart and hunger.

Æsc:xxxxx It is all I can give, gracious lady. Goodbye
xxxxxxxxxroyal Cynefrið, I am camped nearby and shall call again
xxxxxxxxxat evening for your answer.


Exit Æsc


Chorus:xxxCase inflection of Old
xxxxxxxxxEnglish allows the syntax
xxxxxxxxxto manipulate


xxxxxxxxxthe verb,
xxxxxxxxxto expect,
xxxxxxxxxis withheld.

xxxxxxxxxwoman exiled in the gap
xxxxxxxxxof suspended sense. Woe it is

xxxxxxxxxto the one who must
xxxxxxxxxwith longing


A while later.
Enter Leofric from the undergrowth, scratched and filthy, clothes torn


Cynefrið: xLeofric? Can my salt tears have saved
xxxxxxxxxyour body from sea-burial?
xxxxxxxxxAt dark times I have seen you sink
xxxxxxxxxbelow the rippling rush, roaring fish-beasts
xxxxxxxxxtearing your flesh. Terrible nightmares
xxxxxxxxxbroken only by owl-noise – but now
xxxxxxxxxyou stand on earth, undrenched and whole!

Leofric: xxxWife, full of wonders, the tears you wept
xxxxxxxxxmust have fought the waves, washed me ashore,
xxxxxxxxxbut all for nothing. I had so nearly reached you,
xxxxxxxxxafter struggling against stiff thorns
xxxxxxxxxand briars, wrestling bears,
xxxxxxxxxhunting out of hunger, grubbing for roots,
xxxxxxxxxso nearly…


He reveals a bloody stab-wound on his torso


Cynefrið: xMy love-lord, who has pierced your life-cask?
xxxxxxxxxWhose blade has bitten bone, spilled your blood?


As she inspects the wound, Æsc steps into the clearing, unseen, and hides himself behind the oak tree.


Leofric:xxxÆsc! The feast-poet, the fireside story-spinner,
xxxxxxxxxthe word-gilding war-singer of our old hall.

Cynefrið: xSome mistake! Not the best of all men,
xxxxxxxxxhe who came here today, care-laden and consoling!
xxxxxxxxxHe, whose yarns, in years past,
xxxxxxxxxwarmed warriors faster than flame,
xxxxxxxxxwhose dragon-song drove such fear
xxxxxxxxxinto the hearts of the hardest hall-thanes,
xxxxxxxxxwhose life-legends of lost heroes
xxxxxxxxxmade me sob as if for the slaughter of my own son?

Leofric: xxxBe silent sweet wife,
xxxxxxxxxthe dusk darkens. I am dying
xxxxxxxxxand must speak. The storyteller’s art
xxxxxxxxxis like the whalebone box
xxxxxxxxxwrought to mark our wedding.
xxxxxxxxxRemember exquisite ivory and boar-images?
xxxxxxxxxThe cask was embellished with rune-carvings,
xxxxxxxxxtooth-hard words, the work of craftsmen
xxxxxxxxxtelling legend, truth-saying.
xxxxxxxxxBut inside the box
xxxxxxxxxslept my blood-hungry sword,
xxxxxxxxxgore-bejewelled with ruby beads of battle.

xxxxxxxxxSo it is with Æsc, his shining speech
xxxxxxxxxis a polished chest for murder-plans;
xxxxxxxxxhis chants are the golden cover of his breast-locker,
xxxxxxxxxhiding hate and evil thought.
xxxxxxxxxSo often I saw him
xxxxxxxxxat song-time in the hall, slyly tilting
xxxxxxxxxhis head to me as he told of traitors
xxxxxxxxxand nodding honour to others
xxxxxxxxxwhile he gave glory to the battle-wise,
xxxxxxxxxto the brave at heart and bold in war.
xxxxxxxxxBut no more, I met him,
xxxxxxxxxhis sword unsheathed, he did not speak.
xxxxxxxxxHe is unhidden, I am stabbed to the hilt.


He dies


Chorus: xxxthe h-panel inscription (right side)
xxxxxxxxxof franks casket
xxxxxxxxxor auzon runic casket

xxxxxxxxxunclear – vowel substitution
xxxxxxxxxunspaced characters

xxxxxxxxxher hos
xxxxxxxxxhere a horse becomes

xxxxxxxxxherh os
xxxxxxxxxthe goddess genius of the grove

xxxxxxxxxperched on sorrow-mound
xxxxxxxxxthe cause of suffering


xxxxxxxxxbetween the runes

Cynefrið: (Crying)

xxxxxxxxxHusband, I have had
xxxxxxxxxtime to grieve, enough under the stars,
xxxxxxxxxhere in the cold clearing,
xxxxxxxxxI have thought you lost so long, wailed
xxxxxxxxxthrough so many nights, that now

xxxxxxxxxnow I am more glad than mournful,
xxxxxxxxxglad of your gift, your body,
xxxxxxxxxits warmth in winter-month.

xxxxxxxxxI was sick for lack of your life,
xxxxxxxxxfor distance and not knowing, but now
xxxxxxxxxI hold your head, love,
xxxxxxxxxtake your death-heft in hand,
xxxxxxxxxand weep
xxxxxxxxxat the weight words lack.
xxxxxxxxxYou are lost

xxxxxxxxxare lost

xxxxxxxxxare lost


She sobs silently for a few moments. Æsc emerges from behind the oak tree


Æsc: xxxxxAnd so with weeping and a weapon
xxxxxxxxxwe expend our words.
xxxxxxxxxI have clothed myself in kind speech,
xxxxxxxxxfor which there is now no need.
xxxxxxxxxI told you only half truths.
xxxxxxxxxYou choice is not
xxxxxxxxxbetween friend-hall and forest,
xxxxxxxxxbut between the poet
xxxxxxxxxand death. I desire you
xxxxxxxxxand Eoforhild wishes me a wife.
xxxxxxxxxWe will marry, freshly-widowed-one,
xxxxxxxxxand return to the royal roof.
xxxxxxxxxYou will pass the cup for peace
xxxxxxxxxand raise the rim in toast
xxxxxxxxxto the gold lord,
xxxxxxxxxyour boar-slaying saviour,
xxxxxxxxxto your new husband, the harp-singer,
xxxxxxxxxto peace,

xxxxxxxxxand forget this corpse.
xxxxxxxxxDrink the hall-draught, the warrior-wine,
xxxxxxxxxor suffer slaughter.

Cynefrið: xThere is no need for threats.
xxxxxxxxxMy man is no more,
xxxxxxxxxmy sobs have escaped
xxxxxxxxxand I am free to follow.

xxxxxxxxxÆsc, take me in arms,
xxxxxxxxxlove, wrap me in limbs
xxxxxxxxxhave me as hall-bride.
xxxxxxxxxIt is what I will.

Æsc: xxxxxWoman, your will is nothing
xxxxxxxxxwhen fate and my force
xxxxxxxxxgive you no option. I will ignore,
xxxxxxxxxtherefore, the hollowness of your heart-change.
xxxxxxxxxDesire’s proof is in the bones of doing,
xxxxxxxxxand if you do not, you die.


Both Exit


Chorus: xxxpresumably the “very suitable man”
xxxxxxxxxful gemæcne monnan
xxxxxxxxxis meant sarcastically, though he conforms
xxxxxxxxxto the requirements listed

xxxxxxxxxcruel heart-thought with a happy expression

xxxxxxxxxthe murderous-one conventionally distinct
xxxxxxxxxfrom the loved lord but the two
xxxxxxxxxcould be
xxxxxxxxxalternative aspects

xxxxxxxxxthe fine line demanded

xxxxxxxxxwith blithe demeanour
xxxxxxxxxconcealing mind
xxxxxxxxxintending murder

xxxxxxxxxA scyle geong mon

xxxxxxxxxso man must


Next morning. A hard frost. Stage empty for a while. Enter Eoforhild and Æsc.


Æsc: xxxxxHere is the hollow, my lord Eoforhild,
xxxxxxxxxsee the slaughter-meat of the ill-speaking prince.
xxxxxxxxxHere I discovered her, ditch-huddled, dug
xxxxxxxxxinto the roots. Perhaps she returned here
xxxxxxxxxon fleeing to the forest.

Eoforhild:xTrue to my name, I am the best at boar-hunting.
xxxxxxxxxI have stalked the the stiff-bristled pigs through sleet
xxxxxxxxxand over scent-erasing streams.
xxxxxxxxxNo track is too obscure or testing
xxxxxxxxxfor my honed skills: my nose, hound-acute to smell,
xxxxxxxxxmy eyes, as clear and sharp as the icicles
xxxxxxxxxthat hung brittle but unbroken ‘til we came –
xxxxxxxxxshe has not been here, has bent back no branches
xxxxxxxxxsince last you left, journeying hallwards.

Æsc: xxxxxLord, with your subtle sense and hunter’s heart-truths,
xxxxxxxxxexplain, what made her drop-cup and disappear,
xxxxxxxxxso suddenly slip out of the hall?
xxxxxxxxxWhy did this woman, if you know her
xxxxxxxxxlike you know the wood-pig, break the pen
xxxxxxxxxafter making such amiable speech and humble apology?
xxxxxxxxxNo sooner had she drunk deep from the peace-cup,
xxxxxxxxxtaken wealth-warm wine from the wound-gold goblet,
xxxxxxxxxthan she slammed it down, sang out
xxxxxxxxxas if in death throes, as the swan does
xxxxxxxxxbut unmelodious, awful as my detuned harp,
xxxxxxxxxand, wailing, ran back to the wild.

Eoforhild: xI was there, saw as well as you,
xxxxxxxxxbut cannot tell the cause.
xxxxxxxxxI am foremost at dogging footsteps,
xxxxxxxxxboot-prints on the mudded banks,
xxxxxxxxxbut the mind-movements of your heart-sore mistress,
xxxxxxxxxto me, are untraceable.


A twig snaps in the distance


xxxxxxxxxHark! The hog doubles back
xxxxxxxxxon the hunters. Hide yourself.


They hide. Noise grows louder in undergrowth. Cynefrið enters, bursting back into the clearing, pale and sick-looking.


Cynefrið: xOh, let me hold my husband, furred with hoar frost


She clings to Leofric’s body


xxxxxxxxxBold-lord, your death-breath warmed me,
xxxxxxxxxnow let me melt your ice-mask,
xxxxxxxxxwind back your waning with confession and crying.
xxxxxxxxxI never betrayed you, brave-one, by going
xxxxxxxxxwith the harp-strummer to the hall.
xxxxxxxxxBetween drinking fire-hot peace-liquid or else leaving my life,
xxxxxxxxxthere was no choice at all, I had no chance.
xxxxxxxxxEvery bough-draped path out of this forest, followed, leads back
xxxxxxxxxto you, to your great emptiness, my earth-grave.

xxxxxxxxxListen Leofric, I’ll explain.
xxxxxxxxxNow it is I who must mangle words in haste.
xxxxxxxxxI, cursed to the crypt long ago, am finally fading,
xxxxxxxxxsoon to lie with you, lifeless, in this, the proper place.
xxxxxxxxxOh! I have dwelled too long in the dark,
xxxxxxxxxoutside with owls and the shriek of joyless night.
xxxxxxxxxI am a decayed thing, death-close even before now.
xxxxxxxxxMy love, my lord, I was starved, stabbed with hunger…

xxxxxxxxxI ate the mushrooms, sucked their slime and mildewed stalks.
xxxxxxxxxIn blackness I devoured bitter tar-fungus,
xxxxxxxxxsticky-dripping caps which monks boil down to ink
xxxxxxxxxfor prayer-writing,

xxxxxxxxxOh, frost-lord,
xxxxxxxxxlament me, for it was my life’s end.
xxxxxxxxxI went to the golden warrior-house with black in my belly,
xxxxxxxxxknowing that, comingling with cup-liquor,
xxxxxxxxxprovoked by the peace-swig’s rich heat,
xxxxxxxxxthe toad-venom
xxxxxxxxxwould rear in my veins, rip at my heart, rise,
xxxxxxxxxsickly from the stomach, slay me from within.

xxxxxxxxxLike Eve, I had eaten my exile.
xxxxxxxxxThe outcast-fruit was fast in my throat
xxxxxxxxxand I was hateful to hall-joy, hateful
xxxxxxxxxto golden walls, good for nothing but the wild, the wide and biting
xxxxxxxxxand the grave.

xxxxxxxxxI drank to Eoforhild,
xxxxxxxxxto the hall,
xxxxxxxxxto Æsc,
xxxxxxxxxand now I die.


She collapses, dead, next to Leofric. Eoforhild and Æsc emerge from their hiding places.


Eoforhild: xOh, how my too-clear crystal
xxxxxxxxxhunting-sight was sun-blinded!
xxxxxxxxxWe are self-cursed, our hall condemned.
xxxxxxxxxBy our invitation, the exile-wife entered,
xxxxxxxxxbringing death to the banquet,
xxxxxxxxxthe stench of night-wolves, noxious beasts,
xxxxxxxxxthe filth and fear of the forest.

Æsc: xxxxxWhat are we to do, wise one?

Eoforhild: xThese bodies, mud-corrupt, must remain
xxxxxxxxxhere in holt, far from home.
xxxxxxxxxAnd you, Æsc, whose desire opened doors to the dark,
xxxxxxxxxare exiled also. Wander wide in the world,
xxxxxxxxxpick mushrooms,
xxxxxxxxxenough of the grizzly rot-stalks
xxxxxxxxxto simmer a gallon of stinking ink –

xxxxxxxxxsour word-water for silent monks
xxxxxxxxxto write the sad, wood-sick story of you.

Chorus:xxxpronounciation as given
xxxxxxxxxby Mitchell and Robinson

xxxxxxxxxbetween back-vowels the Old
xxxxxxxxxEnglish g is ‘swallowed’ as in dialectal

xxxxxxxxxGerman sagen
xxxxxxxxxprinters of Anglo
xxxxxxxxxSaxon texts generally
xxxxxxxxxuse the equivalent

xxxxxxxxxmodern letter form

xxxxxxxxxon the value of y which

xxxxxxxxxa vowel now lost

xxxxxxxxxSome say that bindende ‘binding’
xxxxxxxxxand timbrode ‘built’
xxxxxxxxxhave a pattern like Modern English

xxxxxxxxx/—-\ —-x

xxxxxxxxxbut not everyone agrees

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